West Green House and Garden: Hangman Hawley, Shenanigans with the Housekeeper, and IRA Bombs – life on a country estate.
I know I am in danger of becoming a visitor attraction blogger, but I am not – honestly!
It’s just that when given the opportunity to visit some of the most gorgeous cathedrals, castles, villages, houses and gardens, we have in England, I feel it my duty to share what I see with all of you. It would be so mean not to.
Recently I was given another little treat out and this time to a gem of a place I never knew existed:
West Green House and Garden.
The 18th century house and gardens sit in a quiet corner of Hampshire – the epitome of a small English manor house – surrounded by farmland. The whole estate covers 10 acres I believe.
Country Life described it as “embowered in trees, with quiet old world gardens spreading around it. This charming building seems the perfect embodiment of tranquil contentment and serenity of spirit, yet there hovers over it the unquiet ghost…”.
To get there is a joy in itself.
Driving down leafy narrow country lanes, passing huge well established houses set back from the road, with long winding driveways, nestling within their own landscaped grounds. The area exudes money and establishment. But I loved it.
I loved the fields with grazing horses, the dappled sunshine hitting the road through the leafy canopy of ancient trees and hedgerows, and the silence – apart from birds complaining loudly, as they streaked from their hiding places above our heads, as the car wound its way cautiously along lanes still abundant in summer flowering weeds and foliage.
The air was fresh but with underlying scents and fragrances only the countryside can yield.
We drove into a large field next to the grand house, set aside as a car park for visitors.
Green houses could be seen across from us, visible through a row of several varieties of apple tree, groaning with fruit to our left.
We were later informed it is a bumper year for English apples: the weather and all that.
I should mention that The Mater was with us on this particular trip, designed to be easy for her to manage, with plenty of places to sit and rest her 85-year-old legs if necessary. There was also a lovely little tea room with tables outside, for when she wanted her coffee fix.
Sadly for her and luckily for us, there weren’t any Edinburgh Wool Shops for her to peruse – but let’s no go there!
Back to the fun part.
During the past 100 years West Green has undergone four periods of transformation apparently.
It was built by General Henry Hawley who is often described as ‘Hangman Hawley’ after the ghastly brutalities he perpetrated in the 1745 Rebellion, particularly at Culloden.
Scottish readers might not want to dwell on this when thinking about visiting the house.
Hawley was a bit of a lad I think. He left his estate to his housekeeper’s second son, William Toovey Hawley, whose descendants lived at West Green until 1898; seems the wages of sin might not be death after-all! I think we can all imagine what the general got up to.
At the beginning of the last century the Playfair family employed architect Robert Weir Schulz to remodel the north front of the house and design new gardens, but after 5 years the family left West Green and a new owner, Evelyn, Duchess of Wellington, continued to perfect the gardens.
The Duchess, later with her cousin, Yvonne Fitzroy, lived and gardened at the house until 1939, largely through the generosity of Sir Victor Sassoon, who bought the house for the Duchess until her death in 1939 – why don’t I ever meet someone like that?
Anyway, Sir Victor left West Green to the National Trust (I adore the NT) in 1957, but it did not actually become Trust property until Miss Fitzroy died in 1971.
The National Trust’s first tenant was Lord Alistair McAlpine (tar-mac roads come to mind), whose lasting contribution to the house and gardens is a collection of neo-classical ornaments designed by the architect, Quinlan Terry.
In 1990 the IRA (Irish Republican Army) detonated a bomb inside the forecourt, causing so much damage that the Trust considered demolishing the house. I have no idea why the IRA wanted to bomb it.
Subsequently, Australian Marylyn Abbott, purchased the lease in 1993 and the National Trust relinquished their financial and management commitment to the property for this period, and Ms Abbott began the painstaking task of rebuilding and making a new garden; so beginning a new era in the history of the house – restoring its ‘serenity of spirit’.
I thought the whole place was just magical. The house wasn’t open to the public, though I understand you can book a private tour in advance. The gardens are so pretty, well designed, and easy to walk around. We didn’t see everything, but we managed to get around most of the formal gardens which were delightful.
Each year flamboyant designs of fruit, flowers, herbs, and vegetables are planted in the last week of March, and great pride is taken to ensure the planting is never exactly the same, so the gentleman at the entrance, taking our money, informed us.
Apple and pear trees of all varieties have been planted everywhere. Some climbing overhead, trained like roses upon arches, others close to the ground interwoven with seasonal planting. Wigwams of sweet peas, stands of corn, sunflowers, pots of artichokes, arbours of peas, beans and nasturtiums add height to regimental lines of vegetables and flowers.
Always planted in shades of the same colour, it can be all red, or yellow, or orange, or perhaps it is a contrasting black and white year so we were told.
Two vegetable patches are planted each season, sometimes one is planted as a story garden.
Near the entrance there are two brilliantly painted red dragons by Nick Muscamp, which rise out of dozens of spring-flowering black red paeonies supported by clipped cloud trees, framed by hornbeams.
Two tiled pagodas were the inspiration for this part of the garden that border the path to the lake field.
We passed a lake with a Chinese style bridge crossing over to an island where ducks, swans, and geese lazed around watching us, watching them.
The island is called Bird Cage Island; there is a large bird-cage there funnily enough.
All plants in this area are of Oriental origin and a small group of red toned Acer Palmatum complete this garden, making superb Autumn colour, we were told.
The lakes reclamation and its follies had been the largest undertaking in the restoration of the gardens. Choked with weeds, leaking, its surrounds thick with brambles, the lake had become a swamp and was remade in 1990.
Nearby there was an obelisk – a monument to a Gardner working there some 40 years.
The lake field contains the architect Quinlan Terry’s most notable collection of small designs: a Doris Temple, a Grotto, to control the lakes overflow, a stylised cage for pheasants with a bronze roof, topped with a large Pineapple which, in Victorian times, was a symbol of wealth.
The Arcadian lake field is entered to the east guarded by Chinoiserie pagodas and from the Walled Garden through old iron gates that open on to an ornamental pond, said to have been a medieval stew pond.
The Walled Garden is entered through a frame of old Wisteria Senensis, opening on to a design that forms two patterns. There is a feeling of mystery and age captured by the planting and design here.
Parterres in the traditional French manner – tightly clipped box hedges forming hearts and ovals – decorated by topiary balls, cones, and pom poms, are simple and striking to see. In one walled garden a chequer board parterre is the centre-piece for an ‘Alice’ garden filled with flowers from the story, in red and white.
There is a Paradise courtyard inspired by traditional Islamic gardens, planted by Marylyn Abbott in 2004, with a simple design of water, trees, and grass framed by the white trunks of Betula Utilis var Jacquemonti. The trees in the island are Malus ‘Evereste’ that appear to be growing from small pots, but are in fact rooted in the earth.
There are several water gardens and the grandest is the Nymphaem, whose focal point is a wall designed by Quinlan Terry, modelled on the fountain of Santa Maria della Scala in the Via Garibaldi in Rome.
Two benches decorate the garden, specially commissioned white benches, designed by Jill Facer and Malcom Last, in 1999.
There is a garden with 5 bridges planted with blue and white Clematis and Wisteria and Japanese Cherry trees.
Open fields and rolling countryside is visible from various places in the garden, all adding to the beauty and simplicity of the gardens and house location.
The house can be glimpsed through iron gates with piers crowned with stone lions. It is square in a colonnaded courtyard. There are busts of gods, emperors and dukes looking down from niches in the house’s facade. I loved the house. It was perfectly formed and situated to my liking.
In late July and early August West Green House hosts weekends of Opera in the Green Theatre. Set outside at night it has been described by Opera Critic, Michael White, as “Stylish, sassy; West Green House is one of the most charming new arrivals on the country house opera circuit, and one of the most promising. It dares to do what others don’t and does it with panache.”
There is a beautiful architect designed theatre, imaginative programming, and a ‘second’ performance of lights illuminating the garden, making West Green House Opera a unique occasion. We were informed. My brother and I would love to try it next year and if we do, I’ll let you know all about it.
You can book and find out about programmes: Tel: + 44 (0)1252 845582
On the way in and out of the gardens you pass through the inevitable Gift Shop, and I must say there were some lovely items for sale including a huge copper bath (distressed) on claw feet, and two amazing long narrow doors which I am sure an interior designer night love. I’m not sure if they’d love the prices tags, but if you can afford it, the price never matters apparently.
We had a quick wander through several green houses and conservatories, which were lovely to see, all designer lay-outs and expensive furniture, and each had grape vines laden with fruit dripping from the roofs, proving too much of a temptation for someone who shall remain anonymous (don’t look at me), as did the apple trees on the way back to the car. I gather a ‘certain someone’ was going to be having baked apples for desert the following day.
On the way home we stopped off for lunch at a 16th century pub called The Leather Bottle, which has really changed little since it was built, even though there had been a fire some 50 years ago, so I am reliably informed by the family Oracle with whom we never argue, mainly because we never win!
You might be interested to know that the pub began life as three cottages.
The name Leather Bottle was often associated with pubs which dated before the time of glass bottles. Leather bottles were hung outside such places to advertise they would provide refills for ale and wine there.
The pub eventually became the White Inn (1714). Though it was also known as The Leather at various times in its history.
At the time Queen Anne died the area was becoming busy with coaches on their way from Reading to Southampton, and a toll road was in use. The area was notorious for robbers and highwaymen – especially on the route from Basingstoke to Bagshot apparently, and William Davis (known as The Golden Farmer, because he only stole gold), used the pub until he was hanged at Tyburn in 1670.
Another to use the pub was Colonel Blood – famous for attempting to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London, who gave himself the name Parson Blood at the time, in order to fool the Keeper of the Jewels.
He made sure he got to know the keeper of the jewels, Talbot Edwards, and used his nephew to chat the keeper’s daughter up and distract the keeper as he tried to steal them. He failed and was caught.
The King (Charles 11) known for taking a liking to adventurous and outrageous folk, somehow decided to pardon Blood, and infuriated everyone by restoring the robber’s lands in Ireland, because his adventure amused him so much! It is also thought that Colonel Blood may have agreed to spy for the king.
It seems crime does pay.
The Leather Bottle, Reading Road, Mattingly, Near Hook, Hampshire RG27 8JU
Tel: +44 (0)1189 326 371
I do hope you have enjoyed my brief trip around West Green House and Gardens – not forgetting the Leather Bottle, which you might like to visit. The food is excellent and not ‘pub grub,’ by any means. The chef is excellent too, at least when we dropped in.
If you fancy visiting West Green, here are the details:
West Green House and Gardens, near Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, opens Easter to September on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Just turn up after about 11am. The parking is free, but if it has rained take your wellies as the car park is in a field and the area around the lake is grass, and possibly a little muddy. There is ‘Pick your Own’ available, and I don’t mean helping yourself. You pay for what you pick.
More Information: Tel: +44 (0)1252 845582
Let me know if you ever find yourself visiting. I’d love to know what you think. I think it is an adorable place and would love to see much more of it at some point. I took far too many photos – too many to share – but I hope those I have posted give you a flavour of the place.
All photographs (c) Jane Risdon 2015. All rights reserved.
UPDATE: Since posting this I have been contacted by West Green (their lovely PR person) and they have added my blog to their website. Apparently Marylyn Abbott is thrilled with my piece and experiences there.
Here is their link – do visit as there is lots to see and experience there.